Treason’s Harbour – Patrick O’Brian

Treason’s Harbour, the ninth installment of the Aubrey-Maturin series, picks up very nearly where the Ionian Mission leaves off, skipping only the denouement Aubrey’s mission to capture a Balkan harbor. This time both his ships, the H.M.S. Worcester and the H.M.S. Surprise, are stuck in harbor and potentially never to set sail again, so the action shifts to the spymaster Maturin and his duel with French intelligence agents in Malta. The scenes there are interspersed with a brief foray to the Red Sea and several port-ventures where the French activity has preceded the British arrival, with Aubrey narrowly avoiding ambush on more than one instance. Along the way there are more mundane concerns as Captain Aubrey worries about his personal finances (which he is dodging) and the future of the midshipmen under his care.

Even more than the Ionian Mission, Treason’s Harbor is a serial installment, picking up where the last left and leaving off in preparation for the next without much care for an individual story arc. For many series this would frustrate me to no end, not least because I often want to see some further resolution in each story, but here I think it works. For one thing, O’Brian is quite good at creating cliff-hangers. For another, the story and recurring cast of characters brings to life the British Navy in a way that is almost domestic. The fighting scenes are well-written and therefore exhilarating, but the bulk of the books are the mundane interactions of swabbing the decks. What’s more, he can get away with this by building affection for the characters through their competence and general goodness in contrasted with other people in the navy. For instance, Jack Aubrey loves his wife Sophie and cares for his crew, even though he is not a particularly good person in many instances. In fact, he is a rather bad husband and, while he is good at keeping his people alive, he is capable of grating with other people who might be annoying but also have legitimate grudges. Yet, Aubrey’s genial benevolence and distaste for corporal punishment endears him to the reader.

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Next up, I am currently about halfway through Kingsley Amis’ The Russian Girl, a farce about terrible people and worse poetry.

Autumn Quail – Naguib Mahfouz

Isa ad-Dabbagh is a young bureaucrat in Egypt who is flourishing through a combination of nepotism and corruption, and is about to rise to the top levels of government although he is only in his thirties. Then the revolution of 1952 where the army outlawed the political parties takes place. Isa is an early victim of the purges, set adrift, but not killed. In his own words, banished without being exiled from the country.

Autumn Quail follows Isa through his decline over the course of several years, marching through his relationships with three women. At first Isa is engaged to Salwa, a wealthy cousin whose mother covets his meteoric rise through the state bureaucracy. However, once he loses his position the family cuts off the pending engagement and, impotent, Isa has no choice but to relent. Then, while moping in Alexandria, he solicits the services of a young woman Riri, who forces her way into his life as a mistress and cleaning lady until he discovers that she is pregnant and throws her out with nothing. Finally, Isa forces his way into a marriage with a thrice-married and barren heiress and succumbs to boredom and sloth.

The first relationship he dreams would be happy, but only in that it represents all his success, while he sabotages the second two, becoming enraged at a child he doesn’t want and women he doesn’t love as he clings to the past and they look to the future. Isa suggests that he genuinely loved Salwa and it may be interpreted that his relationship with her would have been strong. However, Mahfouz presents her as an immaculately-credentialed empty vessel that perfectly matches the smooth and selfish corruption embodied by Isa. The relationship might have worked, but together they represent everything wrong with the system.

Amid this series of excruciating romantic misadventures is the emptiness within Isa once his purpose in life, politics, has been stripped of him and given to rivals. The emptiness threatens to consume him and there is a lingering question of whether the revolution will bring about meaningful progress. Yet, other than a war with Israel that takes place overhead and is a topic of conversation with Isa’s formerly-political friends, the broad ramifications of the Revolution are not actually felt. The questions of hope and progress are played out, but only in Isa’s head, not in the streets or prisons of Egypt.

Ultimately, I found Palace Walk to be a more powerful story than Autumn Quail, but where the former is a domestic epic, the latter is a small story of quiet desperation.

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I am nearly caught up with things I’ve meant to post here, but still have a review of Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads to come in the next day or two. Next up, I am currently reading Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbour, the ninth installment of the Aubrey-Maturin series.

Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein

Robert Heinlein’s 1959 science fiction novel Starship Troopers won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel, but nonetheless elicits controversy and it is easy to see why. On some levels there is very little to this slim book–few rounded characters, almost no plot—and can be seen as a jingoistic pro-military piece of ideologically-infused drivel. On another, there are sentiments about the world and how bootcamp changes a person.

Juan (Johnnie) Rico comes from a wealthy family and his father has determined his life: Harvard business school and then join his company. They don’t get to vote, of course, because that can only happen through military service, but they have money and that is what matters. Then, right after high school, Juan joins the military while trying to show off for a girl. She has the aptitude and intelligence to be a pilot and another friend has the chops to be an engineer. Johnnie is only cut out for the Mobile Infantry—-a grunt in a highly-advanced suit who drops from space sows destruction.

Most of the novel follows Juan’s travails through first bootcamp and early missions, and then officer training school. The narrative unfolds from his point of view, and between grueling exercises the characters touch upon issues of punishment, discipline, responsibility, and violence, but is not uniformly positive or negative on any one position except perhaps on the necessity of citizenship being a right that needs to be earned. It represents issues as genuine problems and for war as an opportunity to make people into the best versions of themselves. And yet Juan is a shining example of this phenomenon, many other characters standing in stark contrast.

I don’t have too many specific observations about this book, in part because I finished it more than a week ago, but while I did appreciate reading it, it did not live up to some of the more well-rounded science fiction I have recently read. Starship Troopers just came across as flatter and more like a philosophical dialogue than a story. However, I cannot help but wonder if some of the controversy about the militarism Heinlein infused in the story comes not from the context of its initial publication, but from the experience of Vietnam in the next decade. In particular, one of the plot hooks later in the story comes from a sudden, forced mobilization of the human race to fight off aliens and how Juan’s father comes to be proud of his son rather than becoming resentful.

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I fell a bit behind on reviews, so I’ll soon be posting discussions of Naguib Mahfouz’s Autumn Quail, a story about the downward spiral of a fired politician told through three relationships, and Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, a new global history that was quite good. This afternoon I started reading Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbor, the ninth Aubrey-Maturin novel.